by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Pasu Au Yeung/WikiCommons/CC

10,000 MARCHED in Hong Kong on New Year’s Day in order to demonstrate against the continued erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong due to the Chinese government, marking that while the democracy movement may have had a tough year, protests will still continue in Hong Kong. The protest included an encirclement of police headquarters and clashes after the crowd attempted to enter Civic Square, the site of high-profile occupations during the Umbrella Movement. At least three were injured, including two police officers. The past year has seen several blows for the democratic movement in Hong Kong, including the disqualification of political candidates who had won political office, and the arrest of high-profile protest leaders such as Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law, as a form of retribution against their actions during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. 

Such disqualifications and arrests mark that China intends to take a firmer line against Hong Kong in the future. Rather than win over Hong Kong residents through incentives, China seems to intend to force Hong Kong’s residents to comply with its will. China also clearly has no intention of honoring its pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s current government system until 2047 without change in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but clearly intends to siphon away Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms in a manner to make Hong Kong no different than any other Chinese city.

Hong Kong saw a change of public leadership in 2017, with Carrie Lam, who was Chief Secretary for Administration, taking charge of government as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in place of CY Leung, who led the government during the Umbrella Movement and stepped down, citing personal reasons but possibly because Leung no longer had the faith of Beijing to quell political dissidence Hong Kong. During the Umbrella Movement, Umbrella Movement activists notably leveraged on the existing tensions between Leung and Lam as part of their strategizing when dealing with the government, knowing that Lam seemed to have her eye on being the next Chief Executive.

But Lam has been, unsurprisingly, a pro-Beijing hardliner who has handled her role with perhaps even less finesse than Leung. And if Hong Kong’s loss of democratic freedoms was already severe under Leung, it is under Lam’s watch that the Hong Kong government has moved outright to restrict candidates with political views that Beijing does not approve of from running for office or disqualifying them once in office, and arresting young political dissidents entirely.

Current demonstrations have focused on the planned West Kowloon high-speed rail joint checkpoint, in which up to a quarter of the railway will be subject to Chinese, rather than Hong Kong law, because this section of the checkpoint will be leased to China. Part of the reason why the move has outraged is symbolic, because this will allow Chinese law to be enforced in Hong Kong, and Chinese law enforcement to operate within Hong Kong.

However, the other reason why the move has outraged is because it is thought that having a Chinese “sphere of influence” in a busy transportation hub in the middle of Hong Kong where Chinese law and not Hong Kong law applies could allow more easily for kidnappings of Hong Kong political dissidents. Examples include the Causeway Bay booksellers, who published tabloid-style books critical of Chinese political leaders, and later reappeared in China, confessing to past crimes in a manner which was likely coerced and claiming that they had gone to China of their own free will. One of the disappearances, that of Lee Bo, notably occurred within Hong Kong itself.

Moreover, it also feared that the legal application of Chinese law within part of West Kowloon train station is a stratagem aimed at setting a legal precedent for the undoing of Hong Kong’s political freedoms. One can get around Hong Kong’s Basic Law if, for example, one rents more and more land to the Chinese government. Perhaps this would eventually expand to encompass all of Hong Kong. An alternative possibility which some have suggested would be that this provides the justification for the imposition of Chinese military authority, for example, by renting land upon which a protest is happening to the Chinese government in order that this legally justifies China’s use of military force against protesters. The possibility of China using high-speed rails from China to Hong Kong to mobilize troops has been raised in the past.

But, overall, while much remains to be protested, the future of Hong Kong’s democratic movement remains to be seen. Agnes Chow of Demosisto has announced plans to run for office, despite the disqualification and arrest of fellow parties including Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, the latter of which served within Hong Kong’s legislative council for some time before being disqualified from office and arrested. It is quite unlikely that Chow will be allowed to run to begin with, but she could similarly be disqualified and arrested depending on the course of her election, and it may be hoped by democracy activists that this will be a means of further stoking public outrage against such crackdowns on political dissidence and the further deterioration of what is left of democracy in Hong Kong. If elected, at 21 years old, Chow would be Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker at even younger than Nathan Law, who had set history as Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker during his brief tenure in office.

And while the Hong Kong democracy movement has demonstrated that it will continue to protest, now are dark times overall for Hong Kong. The future direction of the Hong Kong democracy movement remains to be seen.

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